Tunnels of My Childhood, Chapter 2
By, Felice Scrittore
Photo by Twisted Root Studios
It was on this hot day that my greatest adventure began. You see this community also was once famous for bootlegging during the prohibition of the 1920′s. In this area there are many tunnels that run under the sublevel of the houses, similar to the catacombs of Europe, that lead to the caves of the Mississippi river. This is where the liquor was brought in under the darkness of early morning and run through the tunnels to be sold in the greater Minneapolis – St. Paul area and further north and west into Wisconsin. These caves and catacombs were also used to hide the famous outlaws of the day – Ma Barker, Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and many others. My grandmother’s house was one of the few that had direct access to these tunnels; another little known access is a cramped Italian deli. This store still stands today, if ever demolished it will be the last known entry point to these tunnels in this area.
To escape the sweltering heat my cousins and I decided to go play in the basement of my grandmother’s house. At this time she was visiting with the neighbors next door, her closest friends from the old country, still speaking their native Italian language so we could not understand who or what they were talking about. The house of my grandmother was an old 2 story with the kitchen in the back and the living room in the front – the front room as it was called. There was a screened in 3 season porch that I spent many days watching the rain fall when I couldn’t go outside to play. I would bring my toys out there and dream the day away, or draw my dreams of one day having a horse of my own to ride with the sun shining through the tall prairie grasses littered with wildflowers and buzzing bees stalking nectar from the bloom.
There were two sets of stairs leading to the upper level. One was directly inside the front door of the porch, which led into a middle room on the second level, that was my grandmothers bedroom and a walk through to the only bathroom in the house. Another bedroom sat above the porch area; this was the bedroom that my mother shared with me. There was one more bedroom in the back of the house on the other side of the bathroom; this room was my Uncle Louis’s room. The bathroom that separated the middle room and the back bedroom was the kind that had a commode, a pedestal sink and a huge claw foot tub. Many times I was in trouble for overflowing that tub. I fancied it as a small ocean and would dive under the water pretending to look for buried treasure, or the princess mermaid that mirrors my astrological symbol.
The back stairs went down into the enormous kitchen where my grandmother would fry up her delicious meatballs to be used in her famous spaghetti sauce. The scent of the sizzling and snapping meat as it was cooking would entice me into the kitchen looking for a fresh fried meatball that was rolled just to size for me, and offered up on a pink handled child’s fork. I would run to the front room and sit 1/3 the way up the stairs so I could peer out the porch windows and watch the neighborhood activities from my perch. Here I would see my aunt Mary across the street washing the sidewalk with a garden hose or my uncle John cutting the grass with his push mower that made a clacking sound as it was pushed and pulled through the grass. There were always children of the neighborhood riding a bicycle or running toward some unknown destination past the windows of my world. It was these moments where I would find my quiet space as I leisurely took small bites of my meatball, so as to savor the taste and absorb the memory into my cells.
The back kitchen stairs had a fake step fourth from the bottom. This step was hallow and had a hinge that allowed for easy access. Many years before my conception and existence this was used to hide bootlegged liquor, but was now used for storing boots and shoes. It was here I would hide sometimes when it was naptime, my grandmother always knew where I was and would sit on the step calling my name as I clasped my hand over my mouth to lock the giggles rumbling inside me. When I would finally answer because I was becoming tired of being confined, my grandmother would laugh and say in her beautiful broken English “where are you, I can hear you but I don’t know where to find you”. It was a game we would play and I would be so grateful when she finally let me out that we would hug and kiss and laugh. She then would gently reprimand me about hiding from her because she would be so sad if the day came where she could not find me.